Masked Man

“What will you be for Halloween?” asked the white-haired woman who was visiting her husband, a stick figure made of shadows, who sat up in the bed on the other side of a green vinyl hospital curtain. Sitting across the room—listening as my very old father spoke gibberish and sometimes howled from a mix of dementia and delirium—I didn’t realize at first she was speaking to me. She spoke just as I stood up and was about to put my wool cap on my bald head, preparing to join my wife in the hall to arrange Papa’s transfer to the rehab place where I was all but sure he’d prove beyond rehabilitation.

He’d spent the day rambling in his four languages, singing fragments of opera, Hebrew prayers and children’s songs in French and his native Swiss German, stopping to play a game of bridge with phantom cards: “Ich habe keine Karten. Hast du Karten?” I’d deal them to him as quickly as he ran out, over and over. I kept my face as engaged as possible until he screamed: “Gib mir den king of diamonds!” I shot back, “Nein, I’m done playing,” and put down my cards. He looked grief-stricken at this, shook with sobs, then became clear and turned his jittery blue eyes up to the twirling flight of an invisible bird or insect.

The woman kept watching me from the opening created by the pulled-back curtain, against a wide window filling with the dark October evening. She was a girlish-looking old lady with a roundish face, with an offer of normalcy in kind blue eyes that waited for my answer. I focused on her question, but my head let in a thick stream of short and long thoughts about what was happening in the face, eyes and voice of the man who had made me. I worried I was succumbing to a dementia of my own, wondered why she’d asked me, a fifty-nine-year-old man with a white-gray mustache and little hair, what I’d be for Halloween.

She looked at least ninety, must see me as a tall boy, I thought. I focused on her question as an opportunity—as encounters with strangers often are—to sing out some confessional truth about my situation, but wasn’t prepared when I opened my mouth and let out the words: “Have you been to Bern? Switzerland? That’s where he’s from. You know. The bears. The bear pit? In one of the squares, there’s a fountain with a statue of a huge Swiss guy standing there eating one of his children. I will be that guy for Halloween. I will be that monster.” I raised my hands toward her like a child-scaring man and went: “Grrrrr. Come here little Swiss children. I want to eat you!”

The women leaned back in her blue visitor’s chair, going from looking bewildered to shocked. She clasped her shiny brown pocketbook to her soft belly. She looked so rattled that I felt bad, having let the image of the hungry father fountain pour out of me. She looked like she believed it, could see the man’s wide mouth gobbling a kicking boy. I wanted to rush over and console her, say it wasn’t real, that my long day of waiting for answers from doctors half-interested in an ancient patient cornered by death had overwhelmed me.

As I was about to leave my outburst behind, I realized I didn’t want to apologize. The image of fierce anti-love I’d given her was intentional. I wanted to share the Kindlifresser—Bernese children just call him der Kindli—and if she wasn’t tough enough to take it, that was her problem. I wasn’t waiting for Halloween. I liked tasting her vulnerability like flesh and blood, almost growled again as she sat frightened in her chair. The sight gave me an infusion of new energy as I swung my cap onto my head and my knapsack over my shoulder. I heard my wife’s voice, calling me to the hall to get on with my father’s transfer. Reaching the doorway, I glanced back at the woman, her mouth drawn, still looking as if she were Gretel and had just seen Hansel getting eaten.

“Is that really what you will be?” she asked, hesitantly.

“No, I won’t be him,” I said, calmly. “I will wear the mask of the good son.”

I lifted my face to her, stiff and blameless.

She replied quickly and in a tone that sounded like it had flown straight from the American Midwest, a peaceful sound of good intentions, a voice found in church or with playing grandchildren. “No,” she said. “I’ve sat here and watched you with him. I know it is not a mask. That is what you really are.”

Allan M. Jalon is a New York-based writer of poetry, fiction and journalism. Recent publications include a piece of short fiction called, “A Man of Peace,” in the summer 2014 issue of DoveTales, an International Journal of the Arts, and a journalistic piece exploring a memoir his grandfather wrote of fighting in World War I, which ran last September in the Jewish Forward. His short story, “The Irish Girl,” appeared in the winter 2013 issue 1.4 of Star 82 Review.